Tuesday, July 11, 2006

self portrait as a bureaucrat

I know! Sexiest self portrait ever!

Now that I've lured everybody into my salacious web of red tape....

I hasten to begin by saying that this is not my ultimate image of myself, not what I want on my tombstone. But I do work as a public servant – by choice, even – and it is such a large and complex part of my existence, I feel I should say something about it and why I do it.

When I was in my 20s, I was in the market for a calling. I had realized, or more accurately acknowledged, that my college English major was not going to lead to any career, or even job, that I dreamed of. Aside from being a writer, that is, and that didn’t look like it was going to pay the bills anytime soon.

I was and am not a businessperson; I could not imagine working for anyone else's bottom line. I had a do-gooder streak so deep it could be called a fault. And I kept coming back to a whole set of questions I had had for a long time, but was only beginning to be able to articulate. Questions about urbanism and suburbanism, about historic preservation and urban renewal, about why some places are packed with memory and texture and others are empty and vapid, about why some design decisions foster community and safety and desirability and others, the opposite.

As I began to ask these questions out loud, I learned that the answers were not as unknowable as they had once seemed. There was no wizard behind a curtain decreeing whether the yellow brick road would lead to the Emerald City or to a soulless, cookie-cutter suburbistan. There were people in offices, people like me but with more degrees and better computers. They had studied City Planning and become – are you ready? – city planners! They did research, wrote reports, and made decisions. And their decisions had a concrete (literally at times) effect on the environment around them. There was cause, there was effect. It appealed to me. I applied to graduate school.

And that is how I became a city planner and preservationist. In other words, a public servant and bureaucrat. In other words, a person who wakes up in the morning to go to work for the things I care about in the community I live in. At least, that is how I like to look at it. I know some people do only see me as a red tape dispenser – believe me, I meet a lot of them in my job – but I truly believe in the power of good government to improve communities and lives. Cue sunshine and birdsong.

I have now been working in the City Planning department for over seven years. What’s more, I still care about the work. Maybe too much. At times, it is as rewarding as I imagined it would be. Other times, it is aggravating. And then there are the days, too often, and I can see that tomorrow is going to be one of them, when this work is truly draining, emotionally and physically. I wish I had more left over at the end of the day. Of time and of myself.

Especially now that I have a child. I am torn between being grateful I have a job I care about and feeling that I don’t have the capacity to care as much, to give as much, as I used to. A mom-friend who is a teacher recently put it this way: “Sometimes I fantasize about becoming a cashier.” I know what she means (although I don’t doubt for a minute that being a cashier is aggravating as all hell sometimes).

Sometimes I fantasize about being a full-time mom. But the fact is that I do not have a choice about whether or not to work. My job provides most of our family's income, not to mention our health insurance, since J has become a freelancer. Also, I like to think that Iris benefits from seeing me work for what I believe in, and that it is good for her to hear her father and I discuss our work over dinner at the end of the day.

I do not really think that I would like to quit work completely, just – like so many other working parents – adjust the balance. I am trying to sow some long-term seeds of change, but I don't know when or if or how they will sprout. I hope for a path to open sometime while my daughter is still young which will be a little more relaxed.

Wow. If you've stuck with me this far, I’ll send you a lollipop – something that lasts even longer.

More self portraits at self portrait challenge


Post a Comment

<< Home